Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Christians in Gaza face an uncertain future

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"We aren't safe anymore... This is a conspiracy against our existence in the Holy Land." Josef Elias, a 44-year-old Christian from Gaza City.

Elias' words highlight the current plight of Christians in the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip. Tensions between Muslims and Christians in Gaza have recently been in the spotlight following allegations by the Orthodox Christian Church that a group of armed Islamists kidnapped five Christian Palestinians, a young man and a mother and her three daughters, and forced them to convert to Islam. 

On July 16, hundreds of Christians staged a rare protest in Gaza's main church, demanding the return of members of their community. A solidarity protest was held at the same time in Bethlehem on the plaza of the Church of Nativity.

The Church released the following statement:

"the dangerous Islamist movement is trying to convince Christian men and women to convert to Islam, destroying Christian families and the Christian presence in the Gaza Strip."

Reuters reported that Gaza's Christians are blaming the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Scholars Association and its chairman Salem Salama, a senior member of the Islamist Hamas movement.

Rejecting the accusations, Hamas officials claim that the Christians converted freely to Islam, and point to statements to that effect made by the converted themselves.

The newly converted woman, Hiba Daoud, said in a video clip made by a pro-Hamas news website that it was her decision to become a Muslim. However, her aunt, Fatin Ayyad, claims that Hiba spoke under duress:

"We are increasingly worried about our sons and daughters. If those people joined Islam of their own will it would not have been a problem. But they were under pressure."

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios, who has served the Christian community in Gaza for 12 years, demanded that the Hamas administration help return the woman and her daughters to their home in order to calm tensions.

According to Ynet, the priest called on all official bodies in Gaza to intervene in the matter and stop abductions of Christians and attempts to force them to convert. He also noted that the Church was in contact with the Red Cross and with human rights groups in the Strip to arrange protection for local Christians.

Christians in Gaza have reported experiencing social pressure to convert to Islam, following the Islamic fervour that was ushered into Gaza when Hamas siezed power in 2007.  Haaretz reported:

"...With the latest conversions, only 10 Christians are known to have turned to Islam in the past eight years, according to community members. But some Christians say that while there is no officially sanctioned push to turn them to Islam, individual Muslims have become pushier in trying.

The informal social pressure can range from strangers on the street urging them to embrace Islam to colleagues at work or university persistently discussing their Muslim faith with Christian colleagues. Particularly vulnerable to the advances are youth wanting to join Gaza's wider society and gain greater opportunities for marriage and jobs - as well as unhappily married Christians, since conversion to Islam is one of the few ways to get a divorce from their Church marriages."

Since Hamas came to power in 2007, the small community of Christians in the Gaza Strip has experienced discrimination and at times violence. In 2009, a Gaza church was bombed by al Qaeda-influenced Islamists. In the last five years, two Gaza Christians have been murdered, one by a Muslim friend over a debt and the other was rumoured to have been killed by Islamist radicals for trying to convert Muslims.

Christians in Gaza do not publicly celebrate Christmas and fear wearing a crucifix since the Hamas takeover. The Guardian reported last December that Imad Jelda an Orthodox Christian who runs a youth training centre in Gaza City said:

"People here do not celebrate Christmas anymore because they are nervous... The youth in particular have a fear inside themselves."

The Guardian also noted the story of Peter Qubrsi, 21, who "describes being stopped in the street by a Hamas official who told him to remove the cross. ‘I told him it's not his business and that I wouldn't,' Peter said. After being threatened with arrest he was eventually let go, but the incident scared him."

The Christian population in Gaza has been steadily decreasing. Where it once numbered 3000 in 2007, today its numbers are approximately 2500 and some estimate it to be as low as 1500. There are concerns that the rapid decline could cause the community to disappear, either due to emigration or conversation to Islam.

The mother of a converted youth said:

"If things go on this way, there won't be any Christians left in the Gaza Strip... Today, it's him. Who will be next?"

Following the public rift between Muslims and Christians in Gaza, Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh writes about the difficult predicament Christians in Gaza now face:

"Leaders and members of the Christian community now fear reprisal attacks by Muslim extremists. Some have appealed to the Vatican and Christian groups and churches in the US, Canada and Europe for help.
But according to Christian families, the world does not seem to care about their plight. "We only hear voices telling us to stay where we are and to stop making too much noise," said a Christian man living in Gaza City. "If they continue to turn a blind eye to our tragedy, in a few months there will be no Christians left in Palestine. Today it's happening in the Gaza Strip, tomorrow it will take place in Bethlehem.

...The public protest by the Christians in the Gaza Strip is a first step in the right direction. This is a move that could finally draw the attention of the international community, including Church leaders across the US, to the real problems and dangers facing Palestinian Christians.

Radical Islam, and not checkpoints or a security fence, remains the main threat to defenseless Christians not only in the Palestinians territories, but in the entire Middle East as well."

The Christian community's allegations and protests bring to the foreground the long privately held concerns of the survival of Gaza's small Christian community, and are reflective of broader challenges facing Christian communities in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel the only country in the region where the Christian population is growing.

Sharyn Mittelman